In focus

Saving history

By Haroon Khalid

14 January 2014

Pakistan’s public archives are failing the country’s people and history, and private archives can only do so much.

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As soon as the British annexed Punjab in 1849, they undertook an extensive study of the newly acquired colony, travelling to every village and gathering information about it, as they had already done in other parts of India. With the help of local translators, British officials collected oral histories explaining each village’s origin; recorded the number of temples, gurdwaras and mosques there; detailed the surrounding land, flora and fauna; and noted the caste composition of every village’s population. Their reports also included information from archaeological surveys around certain villages, along with handmade maps. The information was collected in Urdu, and occasionally in Persian, the former official language that was still spoken by the native elites. The British administration then opened a file for every village, where they collated all related documents. These were the ‘Settlement Reports’.

 Separated by district, the records were kept at the office of the Tehsildar – the district’s revenue officer. In Lahore, the office contained a detailed record of 382 villages that are part of the district today. All these records were burned in the early nineties when the office came under attack by a mob, protesting against the rise of the Shia-Sunni conflict in Pakistan and the government apathy towards it. The office became a symbol of the state, and hence a victim of people’s wrath. As the office burned, so did the records containing precious, century-old information.
 
Lahore District was larger during the British era, also incorporating Kasur and Sheikhupura, which have become separate districts since the creation of Pakistan. When Kasur was made a separate district in 1976, its Settlement Reports were moved to the new district headquarters at Kasur city, about 60 km from Lahore on the Ferozepur road. Like Lahore, Kasur is also a border city, the last one on the road before the Indian border. The records were housed at the new Tehsildar office, where they remain today.
 
The office is housed in a small, white, worn colonial bungalow, with deep cracks in the walls. A few government officials sit outside on the veranda, dealing with the villagers who throng to them every day. Referring to the Settlement Reports, they resolve property feuds. Some villagers have come to request an update to the records to avoid future conflicts. Bureaucrat’s assistants run to fetch the necessary files for them. The scene inside the bungalow is bleak. Cast away on hundreds of racks, tied up in bundles of white cloth, are these detailed records collected about 150 years ago.
 
There is no digitalisation, not even a catalogue. The overburdened racks sag under the pressure. Finding a particular village’s file requires conjecture based on many years of work, and only seasoned staffers are up to the task. Of the records themselves, a lot of pages have gone missing, while others have been torn or nibbled at by mice. Unauthorised people are not allowed inside the records room, and access to the documents requires special permission from the Tehsildar, who might accept or reject the request on his or her whim. Having inherited a colonial state, the Pakistani government’s bureaucrats and institutions are meant to control rather than serve the people. The Tehsildar is too important a man for an ordinary person to meet easily, making it difficult for ordinary people to access the archive.
 
Whereas the records in Lahore met an untimely end in the flames, in Kasur the records suffer a slow and natural process of decay. Their condition reflects the apathy towards history and preservation in Pakistan today, and creates a lacuna for researchers that will be hard, if not impossible, to fill.
 
Owning history
History has always been a contentious issue in the country. Pakistan was created on an ideology substantiated by historical reductionism, and preserving state nationalism and ‘ideological boundaries’ today means ignoring certain historical facts and evidence. One feels that there is a systematic murder of history; for instance, official history focuses only on the Muslim narrative and completely ignores the Hindu past. History textbooks begin with the arrival of the Muslims in Sindh in the 7th century, without bothering to talk about history prior to the conquest. Then they jump to the Delhi Sultanate, followed by the Mughals and the British. The section on the freedom struggle ignores the contributions of any freedom fighter or party not aligned with the Muslim League of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. This approach to history continues in colleges and universities. A lot of research originating in Pakistan is also based on the Muslim past, placing the archives which talk about non-Muslim history – like the Settlement Reports – in a vulnerable position.
 
This bias in history also leads to a bias in the archiving process. The Lahore Museum holds an impressive collection of pre-Partition newspapers and pictures depicting Muslim League leaders; however, the collection is conspicuously missing Congress leaders and other freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh or Chandra Shekhar Azad.
 
In other instances where an archive or a collection has been preserved, it has been done with a political agenda. That seems to be the case at Dyal Singh Memorial Trust. Established before the creation of the country, the Trust – which includes a library and research centre – collects material on Sikhs in Pakistan, and publishes books, papers and booklets dealing with the Sikh history of Punjab. The Trust is a political relic from the 80s, when the Pakistani government supported the Sikh separatists in East Punjab who were fighting for a separate country called Khalistan. Even though work began here sometime after 1947, it gained impetus during the 1980s to appease the expatriate Sikh community, who supported the creation of Khalistan and with whom the Pakistani government seemed to enjoy a warm relationship. However after the movement was ruthlessly crushed by the Indian Government in the late 80s and early 90s, the relationship has become irrelevant.
 
Even in cases where the government has preserved archives, lack of access often prevents researchers from using them. Take, for instance, the archive at the Punjab Secretariat, the provincial bureaucratic headquarters in Lahore. Police officers are stationed throughout the complex, and taking a camera past them requires special permission. Facing the entrance is a mausoleum, with an octagonal base and a large dome on the top. This, allegedly, is the tomb of Anarkali, the secret lover of Prince Saleem – the future Emperor Jahangir. According to legend, she was buried here on the orders of the Emperor Akbar, and her mausoleum was constructed later in the Mughal style. However, serious historians doubt the story’s veracity. But for the people, this is the tomb of Anarkali, immortalised in the Bollywood movie Mughal-e-Azam.
 
The tomb of Anarkali contains an impressive collection of documents, pictures, newspapers and other material dating from throughout the period of British colonial rule in Punjab. Protected behind glass lie newspapers from the mid-19th century, published in London and exported to India, with news about the ‘pearl colony’. On the walls are pictures of the thick-moustached early colonisers who consolidated British control here. Behind a pane of glass is the original police report on Bhagat Singh, a pre-Partition revolutionary who was assassinated along with his compatriots for acts of ‘terrorism’ in Lahore. Other sections contain early paintings by European occidentals depicting natives, their rulers and their ‘exotic’ lifestyle. On a normal day, thousands of people throng the Secretariat for official purposes, and hundreds visit the mausoleum and the collection. But using these archives for research requires going through several bureaucrats, who are likely to eventually turn down the request citing the frail condition of the documents. For the moment, they are only for display.
 
The attitude of the authorities here is a legacy of the colonial bureaucracy – something that Pakistanis have adopted from the British along with the archives. In such a framework, the state is not viewed as a facilitator but as a controller and administrator. To add to that, Pakistan has been ruled by military dictators for the majority of its short history, resulting in the perpetuation of this master-client relationship. Citizens are viewed as subjects, as uncivilized entities, who would not know what to do with the archives if they were given access to them. Therefore, it is important to put the collection behind glass and to monitor visitor’s activities.
 
Another major reason that has accelerated the decay process is an overwhelming emphasis on career education. Like in other developing countries, students in Pakistan favour subjects – like economics, engineering and information technology – which are likely to bring them sizeable salaries in the future, as opposed to the humanities and social sciences which, they fear, will leave them with nothing concrete in the end. This has contributed to the lack of interest in research, which then has an impact on the government’s attitude. This creates the attitude that archiving is a useless activity without public support.
 
However, there are some government institutions and officials that have done good preservation work. The National Intangible Heritage Archives based in Islamabad is one example. This UNESCO-funded project is part of the Pakistan National Council of Arts, a government institute meant to promote arts in the country. Arif Jafri, the head of the National Intangible Heritage Archives, is a classically-trained musician and a connoisseur of classical music. For the past three years he has been meticulously collecting recordings of old classical music from across the Indian peninsula. “Till date I have collected 4000 hours of music, all of which has been digitalized using techniques provided by UNESCO,” he says. A properly maintained catalogue provides information about the recording, the artists and the music, along with other technical details. Unlike other government archives, the National Intangible Heritage Archives are open for researchers and collectors to access and use free of cost.
 
Saving for centuries
Any discussion on archiving in Pakistan cannot be completed without looking at private archives, which have become increasingly important and often provide government institutions with archiving expertise and even material.
 
One of the most prominent private museums in the country is the Fakir Khana Museum, situated in the heart of Lahore, inside the historical Walled City. The museum is named after Fakir Khana, the three-storey building where it is housed. In the 19th century, the Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh awarded this historical haveli to his trusted minister Fakir Azizudin, who moved to Lahore from Iran in the 18th century, and claimed direct lineage from the prophet Muhammad. The family still owns the building today.
 
30-year-old Fakir Farhan Shah often visits his ancestral house, where his uncle and cousins live. “Our elders had a passion for collecting memorabilia from all over the world,” he says. “When they came from Iran they brought collections of calligraphy and other books with them. Here they continued collecting from various parts of the country. Our family has continued this tradition. All of us are collectors,” he says. “You can say that this museum has taken over 250 years of preparation.”
 
The family lives on the ground floor, and maintains the museum on the first floor. Originals of century-old miniature paintings and calligraphy are showcased on the walls. In another section of the room is a collection of historical books, written in Persian and Arabic several centuries ago. A stand holds an impressive collection of Chinese porcelain pottery. The walls are also hung with swords, helmets, scabbards and armour collected over several generations. “This is a living history museum, in its true essence,” says Farhan. “Every artefact, painting, book, utensil, [piece of furniture], [and] sword has a story,” he adds. Fathers train the family’s young scions to carry forward the tradition that began more than two centuries ago.
Farhan points out a miniature hanging next to the entrance door, and urges me to examine it through the magnifying glass placed next to it. It is a delicate painting, capturing the essence of Ranjit Singh’s court. “Look at the designs on the cloaks and the turbans,” Farhan says. “These are exactly how they used to be at that time.” He points out a stern looking Sikh man sitting among the many couturiers facing the king. “This is the painter himself. It is a rare piece of [self-portrait],” Farhan adds.
 
The family invites tourists, writers and researchers to come to the museum, where everyone is given a guided tour much like this one. On the other side of the room, Farhan directs my attention to two wooden chairs, both carved with floral patterns, though in different styles. “These are from China and designed for the king and the queen. One of them is for males, while the other for females. Can you guess which one is which?” he asks. “The one with the protrusion is for males,” he explains; the chair has a protrusion on the back, which forces anyone sitting in it to thrust their chest out. The other chair has a concave back, which forces the person occupying it into a shrunken posture. This one was meant for the queen.
 
Not far from the Fakir Khana Museum is Lahore’s recently constructed food street, located in the shadow of the Badshahi Masjid – the Royal Mosque. Setting themselves apart from the new restaurant chain outlets, two prominent establishments are required stops for visitors to the city.
 
The Cuckoo’s Den and the Andaaz Restaurant both command scenic views of the mosque, the Lahore Fort and the tomb of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and both are in historical buildings preserved and upgraded to cater to urban sensibilities. In the Andaaz Restaurant, patrons are greeted by an impressive collection of old Pakistani movie posters, reminiscent of an era when the industry was thriving. Other antiques – typewriters, gramophones, records, and musical instruments – are placed around the room, evoking a sense of the city’s history.
 
Tahir Yadzani Malik, the 50-year-old conservationist from Lahore responsible for the décor, relies on his own private archive for his work. Malik is pursuing a doctorate in conservation at the National College of Arts, Pakistan’s premier art college. He has also carried out a similar restoration project in Islamabad. For instance, the government has recently funded preservation work at Saidpur, a small village within the precincts of the capital, where Malik is currently working on a project.
 
“I have been collecting [for] 18 years,” Malik says. He transformed the ground floor of his house into a museum, and founded an institute
called the Lahore Heritage Club. In his garage, hired craftsmen work on antique doors with intricate carvings. A small alley takes us to the sitting room in Malik’s museum. On one side, the wall is decorated with old pictures of Zoroastrian families and other historical personalities from the city. Underneath them hang traditional women’s dresses from Kalaash, Bahawalpur and other regions of the country. On the other side, a glass case contains an impressive collection of terracotta figurines from the Indus Valley civilisation, alongside other paraphernalia including glasses, old match boxes and pottery. Old pictures of film actors also adorn the walls. Malik has an impressive collection of film posters and pictures. He also has original pre-Partition films that he watches on his antique projector. “Occasionally I invite my friends over and we enjoy a movie,” he says. Pakistan’s film industry is dormant now, and all the major production companies have shut. As a result, many original films produced by those companies were lost, sold for pennies to scavengers. It is from them that Malik purchases his movies.
 
A suitcase standing against a wall contains historical manuscripts written several centuries ago. “I think the oldest manuscript I have is about 400 years old,” he says as he digs into it to showcase his gems. He takes out a few books in bad condition, placing them on the floor. “I use traditional as well as modern techniques of archiving,” he explains. Malik takes particular pride in his collection of historical books on Sikh literature. His collection also includes books written in Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian. Most of them are in precarious condition, and are being digitally archived. “You find such books being sold on the footpaths,” he says. “People don’t know how important they are.” In another room, Malik has a collection of silver coins, some dating back to the reign of Shah Jahan (1592-1666).
 
In contrast to government institutions, the very purpose of private archives is to disseminate knowledge and open up doors for researchers and writers. The Fakir Khana, Lahore Heritage Club, and several other private archives and collections around the country allow researchers exemplary access to their archives. In a state where the government is failing to preserve history and disseminate knowledge, these private initiatives bridge a vital gap.
 
However, private archives can never replace public archives. The basic reason is the funding. The money available to private archivists is limited and often comes from personal savings, whereas public archives work on much larger budgets. Another drawback with private archives is that they are mostly built through individual effort, and as such are difficult to sustain once their founders pass away. In many cases, family members don’t share the same passion for the archive, leaving it to decay. 
 
~ Haroon Khalid is a freelance journalist based in Lahore. He writes about Pakistani culture, religion and history, and is a researcher for the Hri Institute.
 
~This article is from our series of articles on the state of archiving in Southasia.
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